In the middle of an ongoing narrative about David’s rise to power, we find a chapter which focuses on Abigail. “No other character in the episode interacts with all the other characters. Thus, even though the story appears to be about male authority, female presence shines through” (Bach, p.26). Rather than David being glorified in this account, we find Abigail celebrated for her intelligence while being caught between two boorish men. “Nabal, of course, is a fool, but David is heavy-handed and loutish as well. Nabal is too shortsighted to realize the risk inherent in insulting David, but David is too shortsighted to recognize the risk to his future posed by rash vengeance” (Hobbs, p.634-5). It is a rare woman who has not had the experienced of making peace between two difficult people. Abigail has much to teach us on the subject.
The story begins by telling us that David and his men have been “protecting” the sheep of the wealthy landowner Nabal. Although David politely asked for compensation, particularly food for his hungry men, we learn that Nabal never asked for David’s help. Whether or not David was running a protection racket, things quickly heat up between the two men when Nabal rebuffs David and insults him, even insinuating that David is a runaway slave.
“His declaration, however, is immensely ironic, although he does not know it. For he is about to find himself in the position of a master whose slaves break away, telling their mistress of her husband’s stupidity and ethical vacuity (1 Sam 25; 14-17). This defection is doubly ironic, since it is concern for his staff which Nabal cites as the reason for his refusal to honor David’s demand” (Levenson, 1 Samuel, p.16).
Not only did Nabal violate the hospitality laws regarding providing for sojourners, but his offense “was compounded by transgression of the law of hospitality for the harvest festival (the occasion of the sheep-shearing), which had a special code for donating to needy neighbors” (Boyle, p.417). As a fellow Judean, Nabal was also obligated by the customs of hospitality to provide for David and his men (Hobbs, p.26). I want to note that in Isaiah 32:6 the refusal to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty is listed as one of the characteristics of a nabal, a fool (Levenson, 1 Samuel, p.13).
When the Bible uses the term nabal, it “designates not a harmless simpleton, but rather a vicious, materialistic, and egocentric misfit” (Levenson, “1 Samuel,” p.13). “Traditionally the epithet ‘fool’ as…(nabal) was deplorable, euphemistic for serious sin. The fool committed extremely disorderly and unruly acts…that endangered or destroyed social relationships, whether tribal, familial, marital, commercial, or religious” (Boyle, p.415). The concept of nabal is used to describe the rape of Dinah, the rape of Tamar (King David’s daughter) and the rape of the Levite’s concubine. Not a word to take lightly! In fact, there is a distinctive sense of sexual violence given the context in which the word nabal is used. I can’t help but wonder if Abigail suffered from marital rape, as is common even today in traditionally arranged marriages.
Abigail Meets David
In answer to Nabal’s insults, David flew into a rage and vowed to kill everyone who “pisses against the wall,” a crass phrase for all the men of the household. The phrase can also refer to a dog (calev) and therefore a pun on the name of Nabal’s clan of Calebites (a division of the tribe of Judah). Here we get our first glimpse of David the murderer, the man who is capable of shedding innocent blood, a foreshadowing of the later episode of Bathsheba and Uriah (Levenson, 1 Samuel, p.16).
The servants of Nabal’s household knew that he couldn’t be reasoned with so they pleaded with Abigail to do something. She leaped into action by organizing a large supply of provisions to be delivered to David.
“Abigail can take the initiative without her husband’s consent. Her control of household affairs, and the servant’s loyalty to her, are such that Nabal does not even know of her activities until she chooses to tell him the next morning…she can leave the family estate without a proper chaperone, is a measure of her status and relative independence. Later on we read that she comes to David with ‘five maids in attendance’ after personally accepting his marriage proposal…This is highly irregular, unconventional and atypical for the patriarchal framework within which she lives” (Brenner, p.40-1).
We are left with the impression that Abigail held the real responsibility for the household.
Riding a donkey, she intercepted David and his men en route to decimatimg her household. As demonstrated by Gen. 34:27-29,“[r]ape… is an understood privilege of the victors that, having killed the adult men, they may take ownership of the surviving women through rape. Abigail’s future as the wife of a conquered, murdered man is thus not bright… Like Jael, then, Abigail goes out to greet a man who may be coming to rape her, among his other aims” (Duran, p.112). Abigail’s task was to talk her would-be rapist down from his fury and help him find a peaceful solution.
Chapter 25 of the first book of Samuel is known for its literary quality. Within the pericope, Abigail’s speech is considered the height of great literature right up there with Hannah’s prayer, Miriam’s song, and Deborah’s poem. I find it interesting that over an over again women speak, sing and dance with great eloquence in the Bible. Despite the misogynist comments, laws and customs replete throughout the scriptures, it seems that the men who documented the literature of the ancient Israelites could not hide the high esteem and respect they had for women. Accrediting women with masterworks of literature was just as subversive as Abigail’s extravagant gift of bread, wine and meat, the very items Nabal refused to give David.
Throughout most of human history, women have had to lead a double life. On one hand they have been required to appear socially dependent and compliant to male authority. At the same time they have used their good-sense to control their lives, often under the radar of watchful male eyes. Abigail was no different. We “see her in charge, comfortably issuing orders, while at the same time deflecting male anger. One suspects she has spoken equally soothing words to her husband to still his rages” (Bach, p.26-7). Faced once again with a raging man, she approached David by taking all the guilt upon herself. “My lord, let the sin be upon me” (v.24).
“She does not specify what guilt she offers to bear; possibly it is the guilt that might come from an oath not fulfilled. Taking on the guilt is the rhetoric of persuading women. Rivka told Jacob that if he would listen to her, she would accept upon herself any curse that Isaac might utter (Gen. 27:13). The Wise Woman of Tekoa assured David that she would accept any guilt that might occur from the sparing of her son, and David’s throne would be clear of guilt (2 Sam. 14:9)” (Frymer-Kensky, p. 319).
We cannot take her offer to accept all the guilt of her husband’s bad decisions too seriously because in her next sentence she quickly insults her husband with the intention of distancing herself from him: “Let not my lord pay attention to this worthless fellow, to Nabal, for like his name is he: ‘Fool’ is his name, and foolishness is about him…” (1 Sam. 25:25). She’s under no illusions about the true nature of her husband.
Nor is she oblivious to the true nature of David. In her speech she reminded David that God would not protect him if he shed blood outside of “holy war,” that is violence condoned by God. If David did he would incur “bloodguilt” and God would abandon him. She “avows that God is acting to prevent David’s bloodguilt. She is so certain of God’s actions that she can reveal them under oath, implying that she herself is acting as God’s agent” (Frymer-Kensky, p. 320). She subtly alluded to the time when David had the opportunity to kill Saul but restrained himself (1 Sam. 24). She encouraged David to restrain himself once again. “Abigail has to show him that just as being favored over the boor means David cannot himself act as a boor, so too fighting the wars of YHWY means that David must not commit any evil. David must not kill Nabal and his innocent household” (Frymer-Kensky, p. 320-1).
Although King Saul acknowledged that David would become the next king of Israel, Abigail was
“the first person to say that David will be chosen nagid al yisrael, ‘ruler over Israel’ (v. 30). Her assertion that YHWH will build David a bayit ne’eman, ‘a secure dynasty’ (v 28), is an undeniable adumbration of Nathan’s prophecy which utilizes the identical language (2 Sam 7:16). It is this element which led the rabbis, according to David Kimchi, to count Abigail among the seven women who they believed had been graced with the holy spirit” (Levenson, 1 Samuel, p.20).
Her knowledge of Yahweh’s promise to David that he would be the next king explains her extreme deference to him (Jobling, p.154). “Although it is true that the narrator does not present Abigail as a prophetess in the narrower sense, he does mean her to be a woman of providence, a person who, in this case from intelligence… rather than from than from special revelation, senses the drift of history” (Levenson, 1 Samuel, p.20).
Nabal the Jarhead
Although I am not going to delve into all the intricacies of the original Hebrew account, I must indulge myself with one comment regarding the language of this extraordinary story. Abigail brings David two nbly yyn (jars of wine).
One “cannot miss the point that nbl (=nebel, jar) is similar in pronunciation to Nabal, as if Abigail subconsciously offers her very husband to David. As to the dramatic irony, it comes to light when, later on in the story (v.37), we are told of the circumstances of Nabal’s demise: ‘The next morning, when Nabal had slept off the wine (bs’t hyyn mnbl-literally, when the wine went out of Nabal), his wife told him everything that had happened” (Garsiel, p.164-5).
Just as the wine left him, he loses his wife to the man who he did not give anything to. I don’t know about you, but I love wordplay like this and lucky for readers, the Bible is repleat with this kind of banter.
Did Abigail Kill Nabal?
Knowing her husband, Abigail waited for the perfect moment to tell Nabal that she had defied him. She waited until he was sober and able to comprehend the full impact of her betrayal as well as her role in his salvation. At the news, he “became as stone” and ten days later he died. “She utilizes his foul temperament as a weapon against him. She killed him with his own temper just as she spared David the consequences of his” (Hobbs, p. 633). Aside from superb timing, is there any indication that Abigail was responsible for her husband’s death?
“Abigail is subtly implicated by hints in her speech. She wishes that all David’s enemies and those who seek to do him harm will be like Nabal (v.26).The statement presupposes Nabal’s death before it occurs… Abigail is portrayed as having knowledge beforehand of the disaster that is about to strike her husband. She also wishes that Yahweh would sling David’s enemies away with a sling (v.29-who could miss the allusion to David’s weapon of choice?), and the story reports that Nabal’s heart died inside of him and became ‘like a stone'” (McKenzie, p.100).
Regardless of her intentions, the text exonerates Abigail by stating that God struck Nabal (v. 38).
Importance of David’s Marriage to Abigail
Upon hearing that Abigail was suddenly a widow, David sent word that he wanted her to be his wife. Sounds like a simple romance, right? Ah, not so quick. Here are some details to keep in mind. Political marriage could play a role in a man’s ascent to kingship in Israel. For example, David’s son Absalom had intercourse with David’s concubines in an attempt to claim his father’s throne as his own (2 Sam 16:20-23). Then “Adonijah asks for the hand of Abishag, David’s last mistress (1 Kgs 2:13-25), to which Solomon, with characteristic discernment, replies, ‘You might as well ask for the kingdom!’ (v 22). Less explicit, but still probably relevant is Abner’s assumption of Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines” (Levenson, “1 Samuel,” p.16). We are left with the impression that by taking the women of the former leader, a man could claim the title and authority of that man. Nabal was rich as a king (v.2) and therefore he was probably the chief of the Calebites (the most important clan of Judea), the closest thing to a king of Judah at that time (McKenzie, p.97).
Having written a novel (Judith: Wise Woman of Bethulia) about a wealthy woman who inherited her husband’s estate, I have conducted extensive researched on the economic status of ancient Israelite widows. Accounting for a great deal of variation across the thousands of years of Israelite history, there is strong evidence that women did in fact acquire their late husband’s assets in many instances. By acquiring Nabal’s wife, it appears that David then became the chief of the Calebites, the most important clan in Judah. “Overnight he became the richest and most powerful man in Judah” (McKenzie, p.101) and from “there, it was a short step to kingship over all of Judah” (McKenzie, p.55). Thereafter, David was anointed king in Hebron, the capital of the Calebite territory. Perhaps David’s illustrious career would have ended had Abigail not hurried to marry him. What does that say about the real power of kingship in ancient Israel?
Abigail, David’s Half-Sister?
Did you know that David had a sister named Abigail? The name does not occur elsewhere in the Bible and then suddenly there are two of them in David’s life! Several scholars have suggested that the two Abigails were the same person. This is highly speculative since David and Abigail’s lineage is quite jumbled. In 1 Chron. 2:13-16 Abigail is noted as a daughter of Jesse and therefore David’s sister. However, in 2 Sam. 17:25 (LXX) she is recorded as the daughter of Nahash which is seen my most scholars as a typographic error. David’s genealogy presents the same confusion. In 1 Chron. 2:9-17 David is a descendant of Nahshon, the chief of the House of Judah, the leader of Judah in Mosaic times (Num 1:7). Note that in this genealogy, Abigail is David’s sister. On the other hand, 1 Chron. 2:50-51 records David as a direct descendant of Caleb, a contemporary of Moses. Caleb of course is the progenitor of the Calebites, Nabal’s clan. Ah, the plot thickens. Could David and Nabal have been related?
In the story of the scouts in Numbers 13-14, only the heroes Joshua and Caleb from the prior generation are allowed to enter the Promised Land. Since Nahshon dies but Caleb lives, David’s genealogy was altered so that he was descended from the faithful Caleb (Levenson/Halpern, “Political”, p.510). In other words, David’s claim to Judea is only as strong as the Calebites’ pre-eminence and therefore to strengthen his claim to Nabal’s territory and his assumption of Nabal’s role as chieftain of the Calebites, David and Abigail’s genealogies were changed.
2 Sam. 17:25 states that the father of Abigail’s son is Ithra the Israelite while 1 Chr 2:17 records the father was Jether the Ishmaelite. The difference between Ithra and Jether in Hebrew is not significant (Levenson/Halpern, 511-12). Furthermore, the terms Israelite and Ishmaelite could also be confused. Given these assumptions it would seem that Ithra/Jether was the real name of the Nabal of 1 Samual 25 and the name of David’s sister’s first husband. (See Alter, p.301-2 for further discussion). “If Ithra/Jether is the real name of Nabal… then David marries his (half?) sister. Later tradition would suppress the memory of this incestuous union” (Burnette- Bletsch, p. 44). If Abigail was David’s sister then it is easy to see that he takes back his sister in a tit-for-tat measure against King Saul taking back his daughter Michal from David and giving her to another man (Levenson/Halpern, “Political”, p.513).
Abigail and David’s Other Wives
Only if we lack imagination does Abigail disappear from the narrative once she joins David’s harem. Just because we do not hear of her further does not mean that this extraordinary woman evaporates into thin air. “We know she is strong and decisive; might she be capable of sustaining friendships, perhaps with Michal and Bathsheba?… Was Abigail’s gift for pronouncing the right words at the right time necessary to keep peace among the wives of the monarch?” (Bach, p.28). I really like Bach’s application of the Lacanian notion of mirroring to this stage of Abigail’s life. “This strategy allows the women to reflect one another as whole bodies, and deflects the bits-and pieces views we get from glimpsing a shard of each woman in the Davidic mirror” (Bach, p.30). Seen as a whole, David’s wives exemplify the full range of what it is to be a woman.
For Further Reading
Alter, Robert – The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000)
Bach, Alice – The Pleasure of Her Text: Feminist Readings of Biblical and Historical Texts (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990)
Berlin, Adele – “Characterization in Biblical Narrative: David’s Wives” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 23 (1982): 69-85
Biddle, Mark E. – “Ancestral Motifs in 1 Samuel 25: Intertextuality and Characterization” Journal of Biblical Literature 121/4 (2002) 617-638.
Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda – “Abigail” in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000)
Boyle, Marjorie O’Rourke – “The Law of the Heart: The Death of a Fool (1 Samuel 25)” Journal of Biblical Literature 120, no. 3 (2001) 401-427.
Brenner, Athalya – Israelite Women: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative. BibSem 2. (Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1985)
Duran, Nicole - Having Men for Dinner: Biblical Women’s Deadly Banquets (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006)
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva S. – Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schoken Books, 2002)
Garsiel, Moshe – “Wit, Words, and a Woman: 1 Samuel 25,” in Y.T. Radday and A. Brenner, eds., On Humor and the Comic in the Bible. Journal for the Study of the Old TestamentS 92.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990) 161-68.
Hobbs, T.R. – “Man, Woman, and Hospitality — 2 Kings 4:8-36,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 23 (1993) 91-100.
Jobling, David – 1 Samuel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
Levenson, Jon D. – “1 Samuel 25 as Literature and as History” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978) 11-28.
Levenson, Jon D. and B. Halpern – “The Political Import of David’s Marriages” Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980) 507-518.
Solomon, Judith Y. – The Rosh Hodesh Table: Foods at the New Moon (Biblio Press, 1997)